Two for 1
The relationship between world No. 1 Jason Day and Colin Swatton and their journey to the top has the makings of a Hollywood script
July 25, 2016
By Ben Everill, PGATOUR.COM
Editor’s note: As the year draws to a close, we are bringing you some of 2016’s most unique stories to enjoy on your holiday break. Enjoy these looks at some of the unique personalities who play the game we love.
It is a beautiful summer Monday morning in Akron, Ohio, and Jason Day and caddie Colin Swatton are in their element. There are no galleries. Other than a spattering of grounds staff and the occasional fellow competitor, they virtually have Firestone Country Club to themselves as they practice. Day is smiling as he dishes out -- and receives -- some extensive trash talk. Australians call it “sledging.”
In between the barbs, he’s flushing golf shots.
There are no armed police or security guards. No swarms of fans flocking for a glimpse or an autograph of the world No. 1. No manager coordinating the many media and sponsor appearances or meetings. Just two mates, solving the problems of the world while getting a little white ball into a hole as efficiently as possible.
To the untrained ear, the verbal volleys could be considered harsh, even cruel at times. If you listened to the pair go back and forth at one another without fear nor favor, you might blush, gasp and laugh in the same sentence. Plenty of the banter is unprintable but, as is the Australian way, it all comes from love. The old saying goes, the more an Australian makes fun of you, the more they like you.
“We tend to dish it out a lot. But it is the same jokes. We go back and forth at each other a lot and it is almost like we are feeding each other the lines,” Day laughs.
“And if it does cross a line, well, we know each other so well that if a certain tone of voice pops up, you know if one or the other is actually annoyed. It is part of who we are, giving it to each other.”
In reality, this is as close a relationship as you could ever imagine between two former battling Aussies who have taken on the world together, and won.
It is these moments, the ones reminiscent of the old days before they were the greatest duo in world golf, that the pair crave. It keeps them grounded. Keeps them level-headed. And it reminds them where they came from. In the case of Day and Swatton, the silver spoons they may now have the privilege to use were a long way from reality not so long ago.
Tears are emotions we see often at the end of a golf tournament. The enormity of a win washes over a player, or their family, or anyone associated with the team who has put in countless hours to get there. But the tears from Day and Swatton on the 18th green at Whistling Straits in the PGA Championship last year represented sacrifice of a greater magnitude than most. One built over many years. And to understand just how important each man is to the other, and how amazing it is they are together at all as they return to defend the Wanamaker trophy this week at Baltusrol, you have to go back to the beginning and beyond.
Childhood for Jason Day was far from luxurious. Often times his baths were filled by hot water kettle. His “toys” and indeed his first golf club, came from the local landfill. His father Alvyn was a twice-divorced abusive alcoholic who beat his son while his mother Dening was a strict but loving woman from the Philippines. She married Alvyn on first sight after initially being pen pals in her own search for a better life. With his mixed heritage, even school was tough for Day as he was teased for being a “refugee” or “straight off the boat” despite being born and bred in Australia.
When Jason showed an obvious talent for golf from a very young age, it became his obsession. His escape. But there was no escape from Alvyn who, once Day hit his pre-teens, would threaten his son with violence if he couldn’t perform on the course, and then would follow through on his promises.
It built fear of failure into Day. But also a tenacity to work hard and be the best. It taught him his own toughness, particularly mentally. But it is a method that surely would not have borne fruit for much longer. At some point, likely his teens, Day would have been strong enough to walk away, or fight back, and perhaps would have come to resent golf all together.
And then Alvyn was diagnosed with stomach cancer and passed away. Day was just 12. With the fear lifted, Day went wild. His world began to spiral out of control. He was already drinking alcohol to excess, and getting in school and street fights. He threatened others with a smashed beer bottle like something you would see out of an old western movie. He was headed towards jail, or worse.
Fearing the death of her son, a desperate Dening stepped in, borrowed money from Jason’s uncle and shipped him off to boarding school. The plan was to reignite his love for golf and perhaps make something of his life.
At Kooralbyn International School, he met Colin Swatton.
Swatton didn’t like golf growing up. He was all about baseball. Now in Australia this is about as common as an American kid playing cricket. But Swatton showed some significant skills at the American pastime.
By the time Swatton was 18 and needed to make decisions on the direction of his life, he and his dad figured baseball had no future. They looked into the possibility of perhaps a scholarship in the USA, but in those days this was rare, and they didn’t have the finances to go chasing a dream in another country. And so golf became the fall back. His aunt had introduced him to the sport at 12 and while he loved playing casually, it was not his passion. But a job was a job and he started his golf pro traineeship at Murrumbidgee Country Club.
Even then, he harbored dreams of being a ski instructor. Now this was also as rare as hen’s teeth for Australians. Even though living in Canberra he was close to the country’s limited snowfields, snow is about as common as seeing kangaroos in Kansas. It was only his inability to get time off to take the test that kept him off the slopes.
Swatton became quite an accomplished golfer but says “I was always more interested in why and how things worked, and just the practice side of it.” Then, in his third year of his traineeship, an opportunity popped up to work in Singapore for custom club fitter Henry-Griffitts.
“I had a thousand dollars, a set of golf clubs and a suitcase, and I went over,” he recalls of the leap of faith.
Working on commission, Swatton was doing quite well and then one day, while doing a fitting in Malaysia, the owner of a golf course took a liking to Swatton and a colleague and asked the pair to see his course.
“We went up and there was only nine holes designed,” Swatton recalls. “The owner said, ‘I want to open a golf academy. Are you guys interested in opening up a golf academy?’ So basically it was a blank canvas and we went in and put in a multistory driving range, we helped with the redesigning and finishing up the nine holes that were yet to be completed, and I stayed there for 5-1/2 years.”
As fate would have it, Swatton would return to Australia after his father grew ill with pancreatic cancer and passed away. But just as it would for Day soon after, the tragedy opened the door to Kooralbyn.
“Basically I bumped into a guy in a golf shop. I was just looking for golf equipment, just hanging out like golfers do, and I bumped into this guy and we started chatting,” Swatton recalls.
“He was the boarding master at the school, and he said, ‘Hey, we're looking for a golf pro, are you interested in possibly coming out and doing some part time work?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ So I went out, met with the headmaster and the principal of the school, and they hired me on the spot, and within six months I was running the place.”
When Day arrived in Swatton’s class, it was not the greatest of introductions. The kid still had attitude. He was not about to let a new authority figure take control of him as his father had done. Even though this was a system where the likes of Adam Scott and Steven Bowditch had thrived and proven the concept, Day was not about to be a teacher’s pet.
Swatton and a group of keen students were setting up short-game drills, but Day wanted to go and play the par-3 course. He told Swatton as much and the coach reiterated it was not on the agenda. The pair then traded heated barbs with language far from fit for a school. Day then stormed off to do what he wanted anyway.
Soon after Day had an epiphany that would change his life for the better.
“I just thought about it and was like, what am I doing?” Day says.
“I thought about my mum and my sisters. I thought about what they were sacrificing for me to be there and here I was being an obnoxious punk. I knew I had to go back and apologize.”
He did as much and Swatton realized this kid had more to him than met the initial eye. Day then transitioned into the hardest worker in the place, waking in the early hours and staying later than others to practice. And Swatton began to learn more and more about him, including the lack of a father figure in his life.
“His mum actually met with me early on and she was very expectant that I would take some of that role, and she even asked me to discipline him,” Swatton recalls.
“I was pretty quick to tell her that I'm not a substitute father. I'm a golf instructor first. I can be a friend second. I can help him, guide him, do whatever.
“I remember saying to him, look, I'm not your dad. I'm not claiming to be a dad, and I never said to him, I don't want to be. I just said, that's not my role. My role is going to be as a coach. My role is going to be as a caddie, and also as a friend, and I went down that path.
“But that was something that I really am proud of, being involved with that. When somebody comes and says, hey, can you be a dad, it was like it was a shock as much as it was an honor.”
Day would come to Swatton with teenage issues and even asked for permission to have a girlfriend; his mum had said it was OK with her if it was OK with coach. Swatton gave Day an old cell phone so they could keep in touch, a luxury the Days would never be able to afford.
“We literally talked about everything,” Day says. “He helped me learn things about life. The day-to-day things, if I needed to know how to do something or how something worked, he was the one I asked.
“He’s been there the whole time. Any time I need to ask him anything about anything he was there. I could talk to him if I was travelling and playing and I just got the feeling he cared. He cared about all of his students, but he certainly cared about me and not just my golf game, but my wellbeing.
“We just kind of got bonded and you start seeing each other as a family. He came down to caddie at the Australian Amateur in Hobart after I won the stroke-play portion for the match play and although I then played terrible, it was things like that, gestures of support from the very beginning.”
As Jason’s skills improved, the need for extra practice and help in tournaments became part of Swatton’s life. When the school faced significant financial issues and was forced into temporary closure, Swatton moved to a local rival, taking Day and other kids with him. An opportunity then came to head to the USA for the 2004 Callaway World Junior Championship, but Dening could not go as she needed to work to support the rest of the family. So Swatton was the chaperone.
The trip was a productive one. Day won the Boys’ 15-17 division.
“Once I won the world junior at Torrey Pines, everything really started to unfold,” Day recalls. “We already had the building blocks of a great relationship – I was playing well in Australia, came over here and played even better and then from there kind of turned it on.
“That’s when we started talking about being professional when I was 16, 17.”
When Swatton presented Dening with the options of what to do, and suggested going to the USA, she consented as long as he was going along for the ride. The pair would then embark on the journey of the Web.com Tour, where the 19-year-old Day would become the youngest winner ever in 2007. He found his way onto the big stage of the PGA TOUR in 2008, all with Swatton in the dual role of caddie and coach.
It’s a role he has kept to this day.
“In the beginning I guess I didn’t expect he would be on the bag this long but now I can’t really see him off the bag,” Day says.
“We both gel together so well. I would like him to be on the bag at least until I’m 40, which is another 12 years, and then we can reevaluate things from there. It would be nice to have my whole career with him on the bag. As long as he can carry it, I’m sure he can do it.”
Swatton originally set himself the goals of being on the bag for a Masters win, or another major, or getting Day to No. 1 in the world. With two of the three boxes checked off, he now shows no signs of giving up what would be possibly the most sought-after bag in golf.
“Every new experience presents itself with a new opportunity to learn. So once he won his first major and then dealing with all the emotions, dealing with all the aspects of teaching and coaching to win a major, that was a huge learning experience, not only for him but for me,” Swatton says.
“Then being able to take that and then sort of parlay that into becoming the best player in the world, and now everything that he's learning about being the best player in the world and what I'm learning about coaching a player that's the best in the world, it's still a learning experience”
Swatton’s sights are now firmly on what they can achieve going forward. Staying on top of the mountain while constantly improving is the plan.
“Now the piece of the puzzle is to be able to say, how do we maintain that? How do we do 331 weeks, how do we do 662 weeks (at No. 1)?” Swatton says.
“For me to be able to help somebody get to the top 10 in the world, then I help someone win a major, then I help someone become the best player in the world, then I help them maintain that position in the world for whatever it is, they're all exciting things, and I want to be a part of it, and while he wants me to be a part of that, then I'll stick around.
“The moment that he feels I'm not helping him, I'm not challenging, I'm not making him better, is maybe the moment he looks for somebody else.”
The two were, of course, together when Day won his maiden PGA TOUR event at the AT&T Byron Nelson in 2010. They’ve been together for the nine wins he has had since. The pair also shared the nine top 10s in majors before their breakthrough a year ago, riding the pains of defeat hard. When Day coughed up the Masters in 2013 with two late bogeys, he blamed an inability to slow down and concentrate in the moment. The communication between the pair was not at its peak. It was a hard lesson learned.
Importantly the pair have always learned from the tough moments. Day says Swatton has only once in his life given him a mystery yardage. And Swatton remembers it well, as it proved costly. Coming down the stretch at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in 2011 Day was making a run up the boards with each place representing a significant chunk of change for the youngster.
On the 13th hole, things unraveled.
“I added it on instead of taking it off. That simple,” Swatton recalls.
“He airmailed the green. I put my hand up straight away, said, that's on me. And he ended up making a miraculous putt for double bogey. Honestly, I was sick. I couldn't get on the plane that night.”
But from it ,Day decided it would be a good idea if both men did the numbers. If they both had responsibility for it, they could communicate much more effectively. “Two heads are better than one,” Swatton adds. And it is working. While plenty of caddies are on the tour merry-go-round with players, these two work through the tense moments.
“I've always tried to make Jason understand that this is a decision that we are trying to make together, and I would never make a decision that's to try and intentionally put him in a bunker or in the water or out of bounds or whatever,” Swatton says.
“If we could have made a better decision, we would have. That's the kind of thing that I want him to come away with.”
Day knows there have been some testy moments, but the resiliency of the relationship is high. At the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide this year, Swatton was frustrated with a poor shot and Day snapped at him, “Who’s got the harder job, me or you?”
“I said it and I got mad and I played bad and after the round, I was frustrated at Col but I am sitting there realizing it was a nothing event that threw me off and how silly that was,” Day says.
“At the end of the day he just wants what is best for me. He looked cranky, but he’s really just mad that I hit a shot when I wasn’t ready and it is his job to make sure I am comfortable.
“He’s mad at himself, but I took it the wrong way and I got angry at him. You can get little things like that.”
Has Day ever seriously thought about relegating Swatton to just coach?
“I know that a bad shot is on me,” Day responds. “There has never been a time where I thought he should be off the bag because of anything he’s done or not done.
“I thought about it once, but that was because of me. I was playing terrible golf and I wasn’t working hard enough. As all golfers do, what’s the first thing to go? Caddie. But I pulled myself into line pretty quick.”
While there are several very good loopers out there, Swatton is arguably the hardest working. You can see him at each venue well before Day even arrives, mapping the course, crunching the avalanche of stats he’s kept on his man’s career to work out how to get an edge. Before every tournament Swatton has figured out an extensive game plan, and knows what the winning score is likely to be. He is within a shot almost always, only messed up by an odd change in weather conditions, or an out-of-the-blocks performance like Day’s at Whistling Straits last year.
Day laughs when he thinks of just how prepared Swatton is, recalling one team meeting back in the early years where he, Ellie and manager Bud Martin sat through Swatton’s extensive and lengthy PowerPoint presentation worthy of a place in the White House situation room.
“I just try and do a good job, and if I literally can prepare the way I want to prepare and execute the way I want to execute, he likes that, and he knows that I'm doing a good day's work,” Swatton says.
“If he asks me a question, I'd like to be able to have the answer for it, and I'd feel really bad if I didn't have that simply because I wanted to have a sleep-in.
“To me this is one of the greatest jobs in the world. If the hardest thing I've got to do is get up in the morning and walk 18 holes of golf, which takes me 4-1/2 hours if I map the course well, that's the easiest job in the world compared to somebody sitting there for eight hours a day tapping away at a computer or working in a factory.”
While Ellie is the wife, she has no problem sharing her man with Swatton, particularly as Dening remains back in Australia. Ellie’s family lives close to them in Ohio and she cherishes family values. Swatton was even there on their first date. Like literally there.
It was two years in the making after Day had seen Ellie as a waitress at Mavis Winkle’s Pub in Twinsville Ohio, as a 17-year-old. A year later he got up the nerve to start texting her. About a year after that, he invited her to watch him play in Ohio, the week he won on the Web.com Tour. And a week later, they went on their first official date. To Applebee’s.
“We had dinner at Applebee’s and Swatto was with us as the third wheel,” Day laughs. “Afterwards I was like, ‘I think we might go to a movie’… trying to hint to Col to bail after dinner.”
But in true Australian style, Swatton played the moment to perfection.
“A movie? Great! What should we see?” he said as he watched young Jason squirm.
Recalls Swatton: “He was giving me all sorts of looks and stuff so I had some fun with that before deciding I was a bit ‘tired’ and let them go.”
No surprise that when Jason and Ellie were married, Swatton was the best man.
The practice round at Firestone is over now, but instead of going their separate ways for the rest of the day, Day and Swatton decide to go fishing. Meanwhile, the entourage gets larger. Dash Day joins his father fishing. Ellie holds daughter Lucy. Swatton’s wife Lisa is there.
Meanwhile, the banter continues.
Boasts Day: “Col only caught this baby fish. I caught a massive one, so I win.”
Counters Swatton: “Oh yeah, but ask him if he will touch it. Or if I have to pull it in because he is afraid to grab it.”
This is what it is really all about. They are family.
“I love them together,” Ellie says of Jason and Col. “Anytime there has even been a minor thought they wouldn’t work together, I would have a heart attack and it stresses me out because I know how good they are for each other.
“I see a different relationship than I see with any other player and caddie. Maybe there are others out there like that, but I just feel like it is such a hard bond to come by. It is something really special between them.
“Jason’s path would have been totally different if he didn’t meet Col. Who knows if he hadn’t met him where he would be. Col is a massive reason he has made it this far, and just as importantly, kept going.”
Martin, who has managed Day from the start of his professional career, takes it a step higher.
“It is unconditional devotion. Both people are kind of locked into the success of the other,” he says. “I view Col as like an anal-retentive chef; he is on top of every single twist and turn. He’s not missing anything. You can see the pride he takes in Jason both in golf and life.
“You are not too developed at 12, physically, emotionally. To be part of that process to get him to world No. 1 has to be pretty gratifying.”
Despite all the glory, all the money, all the fame that Day has achieved, there is something else that has impressed Swatton the most about the world’s top-ranked golfer.
“The thing is that I've always said makes me proudest about him is the person he's become,” he says. “He’s a wonderful man, husband, friend and father, and I’ve been lucky enough to be on a lot of his journey with him.
“At the end of the day, we are just two Aussie blokes trying to be the best we can be and having a good time on the way.”